Since first gaining notice several years ago as the reigning queen of “mumblecore” (a film genre defined by tiny budgets and naturalistic dialog) — and up through recent roles in more mainstream fare (Greenberg, To Rome With Love, Lola Versus) — actress Greta Gerwig has worn the mantle of “It girl.” TIME was among the many publications to bestow that sobriquet; we did it last summer. But the title needs some updating. These days, she’s really more of an It woman.
In the upcoming movie Frances Ha (May 17), Gerwig stars as the title character, another young woman making the difficult transition to adulthood. (Gerwig also shares a writing credit with Frances Ha with director Noah Baumbach, who happens to also be her boyfriend of about a year and a half.) And in the new issue to TIME she talks about growing up and why 27 — Frances’ age — is when that happens.
“I feel like an adult,” she says of being 29. “I’m still young, within the span of my life, but I don’t feel obsessed with my youth or scared that it’s going. It’s gone. That’s okay. I feel like I did it pretty well.”
But, while on a recent visit to Manhattan’s New Museum, that’s not all she talked about.
TIME: What it like to write a part you were going to play?
Greta Gerwig: It’s hard to think about yourself playing it, if you’re trying to write more than one part, so I kind of didn’t think about playing it [while writing]. I actually thought maybe I didn’t want to play the part for a while, because I was scared. Also, I wanted it to be clear that I co-wrote it. And I thought if I acted in it, maybe people would think I was improvising it or something, and got a writing credit just as a token. But my agents were, like, ‘That’s insane. That’s a totally weird way to go about things.’
What did you find scary?
I had this feeling that I need to make sure I’m the best choice for this role. It meant so much to me, that I didn’t want to do it badly.
What kind of equipment did you use to get the movie to look the way it does?
We used the Canon 5D. In some ways, the look of the film was dictated by the constraints of the camera. But in a nice way. We knew it worked better if we locked down the frame, because it doesn’t handle movement that well, but that’s the way we were thinking about it, anyway. When Noah and I had talked about the script, we talked about wanting it to be a tableaux that moved. It adds a proscenium quality to the scenes, which I really like.
Did you always know it would be black-and-white?
Yeah, that was the whole thing with the camera tests. Not wanting it to look too inky, but wanting it to look more silvery, more of a Manhattan black-and-white versus a Stranger Than Paradise black-and-white or Raging Bull black-and-white. They’re all so different and it was this very specific nostalgic black-and-white that we wanted.
What Manhattan a big part of the inspiration for that?
It was Manhattan — but not just Manhattan. It was more a feeling of instant nostalgia that the black-and-white creates, along with the music, and the way it was shot. The black-and-white really put Frances in a film that she doesn’t feel like she’s in. If you asked Frances what she thought the movie of her life looked like, it would not look like that. So it romanticizes her life for her in a way that she has trouble doing. That seemed to be an act of generosity toward this character we loved so much.
The song “Modern Love” is also a big touchstone for the movie. How did that particular track end up so prominently featured, especially in the scene where Frances runs through the streets of the city?
It’s the best song to run to! We tried lots of different music but that’s the best one. It’s a big song for a big moment.
Did you shut down the street to shoot it?
No. The way that this movie was constructed was an experiment to see if we could do it this way. Really small, but without sacrificing anything that really mattered. We were doing 30 or 40 takes on every single set-up and we had the freedom to do that. Because of that, we didn’t have the ability to shut down the street. But we had the ability to do it four different days over three months, and I could run as until I got tired.
How did your experience starting out with “mumblecore” movies affect Frances Ha? Was it useful to you?
It was useful in that I’ve always had a very factory-floor feeling about movies and filmmaking, because I started in something that was so minimalist and so hands on. I’ve never had a real division-of-labor approach to it or a sense of hierarchy on a set. I’m always kind of put off by that in films.
The difference is—I learned a lot about acting; I got very used to the feeling of having a camera there and I got to work out a lot of ideas, and that was really great—that I became much more interested in things that were written. I stopped being interested in improvisation and I continue to not be that interested in it. Comedians can do it on a different level because they have a goal, but if you’re improvising something that’s dramatic there’s not that much to be good at. It can be really helpful in developing things and I think there are tremendously exciting moments of improvisation on screen in movies that I love, but I always think that I want it to exist in something that has bones.
Do people ask you about Girls a lot, as a comparison point for Frances Ha?
It’s flattering. I love [Lena Dunham]. I love the show.
And you’ve both got Brooklyn, and peeing on train tracks…
The peeing! She did that after! I’d never seen Girls when we wrote this. Of course, you always want to be the only one doing anything that you’re doing, but I think that it’s better ultimately. The more, the more.
And they both have the female friendship that’s central. I’ve heard Frances Ha referred to as a bromance. I mean, I guess “bro” rhymes with “ro”…
Why isn’t that a genre?
I hope it’s becoming a genre. I think it’s just that there aren’t that many stories about women, period, that aren’t about men or aren’t about romance or finding a partner or losing a partner or getting a partner. So whether it’s a “homance” or a “lady western” or a “lady spy,” I think there just haven’t been as many films about them. I feel like every year there’s a thing about ‘not enough roles for ladies!’ and, then, also an article, like “The Year of The Woman.” I think that we all just know in our hearts they’re underrepresented. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t amazing moments.
What was it like seeing the final cut of Frances for the first time?
It was sad because the length that movies are is so disproportionate to how much you put into it. I felt like I put my whole heart and my soul and everything into the movie — and then, after 90 minutes, it’s over. You think, ‘There has got to be more!’ I always feel this way looking at paintings. It takes no time at all to see it, the time that it takes for it to hit your eye, and it took so much to make. There’s something so sad and beautiful about it.
Have you ever done a project that you regret?
I’ve never worked on anything that I haven’t in some way enjoyed. I’ve gone through times where I regretted movies that I now don’t regret. I was naked in lots of stuff for a while. And it was like, ‘Why have I been naked in everything, and I’m a whore, and everybody thinks I’m a softcore porn star.’ I was so ashamed. I remember going through all these like great actresses, like Cate Blanchett’s never been naked, Meryl Streep’s never been naked… Even when people would present me with like, ‘Well, Kate Winslet was naked,’ I was like, in a period piece! Now I don’t feel ashamed of it. So much of it is based on where you are as a person.
I don’t exactly what changed. When I did them, I wasn’t ashamed. And when they came out, I wasn’t ashamed. I think I was going through a period where I was worried that I wasn’t very good. There’s like a cliché of like, ‘she got where she is because she takes her clothes off,’ and I believed that worst thing about myself. And then it fades. I think the cure for any of that is really engaging with the stuff that you love, as cheesy as that sounds. I really do think that work gets you out of that. As long as you’re not working, all you have to do is sit around and think about how you’re not good enough.
Which is also something Frances learns.
It’s in the doing. I think it’s true of a lot of Americans, but I really admire work. It can save you when you’re drowning.